Nothing in the world means more to Savannah Burton than feeling good about herself.
For the better part of her 39 years, that was not true. Today, it’s so true and in so many ways.
A big part of being happy is the way you feel about yourself. For years, growing up in Corner Brook, that was far from the case for Burton.
Physically, she was just not happy with who she was. In fact, she actually grew up a boy, a teenage male, and later a man.
“In appearance, yes,” she said via telephone from Toronto, her home of about 14 years.
She played both hockey and baseball, reaching elite amateur status on the diamond as a member of the Corner Brook Barons senior A team in the late 1990s.
Despite this moderate success, today, as her athletic prowess continues as a transgender athlete — who’s helping break barriers and open eyes and minds — she points out her self-doubts left her far short of the athlete she could have been.
“It is an incredibly difficult thing to live with,” she said. “The amount of guilt and fear and shame about how you feel and how people would perceive you if they knew you were transgender.”
Her upbringing was one of social awkwardness and isolation. The locker rooms, arenas and fields, and the nature of attitudes and behaviours of many athletes added to her uncertainty and lack of comfort.
She was depressed.
Then came her move to Toronto. A far more diverse scene awaited, but it came with its own challenges. Housing and employment barriers awaited, something she says is magnified for an openly transgender person. It was her dream to undergo the transition from male to female, and she thought the move to Toronto would make that easier to achieve. It became a much longer wait than she anticipated.
However, her new life in Toronto came with a renewed dedication toward athletics. She trained harder and strived for greatness. That aspect of her life all came together in 2012 when she represented Canada at the 2012 World Dodgeball Federation World Championships in Malaysia. The team captured silver in the tournament.
Burton was happier with herself, but the biggest change was yet to come.
She would take a step back from competitive dodgeball after the world championships. In fact, athletics fell on the backburner altogether. The single most momentous change of her life began about two years ago. She was finally able to begin her transition.
About two years after beginning hormone replacement therapy and taking testosterone blockers, Burton is back on the athletic scene. Personally, that means a lot to her, but it actually carries much more significance than self-fulfillment. She is now becoming an inspiration and example for so many.
Burton and rowing partner Enza Anderson took to the Ottawa River water Sunday for the Canadian Sculling Marathon. As part of a five-person team dubbed Team TRANS-fusion, they are recognized as the first openly transgender athletes to compete in rowing in Canada.
Placing fourth out of five teams could leave a legacy that will last for so much longer than the just over two hours it took to complete the 22-kilometre race.
“If people see me out there playing sports, they might have less apprehension to try sports themselves, especially trans-youth who are uncomfortable with their gender identity,” she said.
They are part of a pilot project at Toronto’s Hanlon Boat Club, which sought to attract transgender people to its Learn-to-Row program.
For Burton, the whole experience went over so well that she hopes to do much more athletically. She plans to keep training with hopes to progress to the masters level and compete in other sanctioned regattas.
She is also now contemplating a return to dodgeball.
Societal discrimination is a struggle for transgender people, but Burton — despite being about six foot, three inches tall and admittedly standing out in most crowds — says she has been lucky thus far not to have encountered much harassment or ridicule.
Even though there was an acceptance in the rowing community, re-entering the sports world is a major step for her.
“Sports has a big impediment for transgender people to participate,” she said. “They feel they won’t be treated fairly or some people just don’t know where they fit in.”
With the life challenges facing transgender people, acceptance in sports is often an afterthought, Burton said. With no or inadequate housing, difficulties getting a job and earning sufficient income, it is a shame that one of the most fundamental means of a healthy lifestyle also contains barriers.
By willingly being an open advocate of transgender athletics, she hopes to change that.
Burton was also quite pleased to learn there is an active LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) community in Corner Brook. Through organizations at the university and high school, there is an attempt at increasing awareness and combating the discrimination.
She is a volunteer for the Meal Trans program at The 519, a community centre in Toronto dedicated primarily to the LGBTQ community.
“Being a transgender advocate is something I want to become more involved in, and I would love to attend an event in Corner Brook in the future,” she said.
With the changes to her appearance, dedication to sport, becoming a transgender advocate, her self-acceptance, and the progression of her acting career — she recently landed a role on “Beauty and the Beast” which airs on the CW Network in the United States and Showcase in Canada — she would return to her hometown feeling much better about herself than when she left.